Dairy farmer James Robinson is using technology to promote his farm to a wider audience and also creating a valuable online community of farmers, as Aly Balsom reports.
About 50,000 people saw dairy farmer James Robinson walking his cows down a misty lane for milking last month, without even stepping foot on-farm.
In fact, most of the herd’s fanbase was likely tucked up in the warmth of their homes or sipping a coffee in a cafe while browsing the journey on their mobile phone.
And James believes this is the beauty of social media: one simple tweet of a photo of daily life on-farm can reach thousands of people from all walks of life, across the globe.
He says: “There’s not many things you can do for free in 30 seconds that can reach 50,000 people.”
James is a fifth-generation farmer and farms with his wife Michelle and his parents Henry and Kathleen at Strickley Farm, Kendal, Cumbria. James and Michelle also have two sons, Chris, 13, and Robert, 14.
The Robinsons run 250 organic pedigree Dairy Shorthorns and have always been keen to do their bit to promote what they do onfarm, including showing stock and hosting various school visits as part of their involvement with Higher Level Stewardship
Social media has proved an extension of these more traditional approaches to promotion. To start with, James admits he was fairly sceptical of the digital medium, believing it was a lot of people tweeting pictures of their full English breakfasts and kittens. But he quickly realised the huge potential to showcase their farming business, engage with consumers and generate a useful network in agriculture for knowledge sharing.
James says: “I started on Twitter to chat with fellow farmers about technical stuff, such as grass mixes or cow tracks. It then developed into something bigger, with most of my followers being from outside of farming.”
Having started on Twitter, Instagram and a little Snapchat about four years ago, his following has grown considerably. By posting daily, he now has 12,000 followers on Twitter and 600 on Instagram.
Big jumps have occurred when people with large followings retweet his posts. Twitter has proved to be more successful in James’ view as it encourages more engagement. His followers are varied and include the likes of singer Cerys Matthews and Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons.
Photos have proved most popular, with snapshots of newborn calves and scenery proving successful.
“Once you start getting questions from non-farming people, you realise there’s big interest from the general public,” says James.
“It always amazes me 12,000 people are interested in what I’m doing. I put a lot of mundane things on there, but to others, it’s far from mundane.”
James is keen not to stage photos but to capture real imagery to communicate the realities of farming. However, being conscious of who his audience is and exactly what’s being tweeted is fundamental. For example, taking a photo of treating a lame cow and explaining what you are doing is fine, but simply taking a photo of a lame cow may be damaging to the industry’s image.
“Everyone should be conscious of what they’re saying. Even if you’re just having a bit of joke, everyone can see it. It can be bad on that person and bad on the industry,” he says. He thinks it is important farmers recognise the size of the ‘shop window’ available to them to promote agriculture.
This can be simple things such as showing cattle or how farmers behave in public or on the roads.
But whichever avenue you think about, he says conducting yourself appropriately is essential to portray the industry in a good light. James believes selling his farm’s story of food production gives consumers a better understanding of farming, which could encourage them to buy British when they are in the supermarket, or be more understanding when cows hold them up on the road.
“You can sway them by having an image and a story,” he says.
He attributes much of his success on social media to his positivity, but he does not shy away from the negatives. He recently encouraged his Twitter followers to vote on whether the second of a twin would be a heifer or a bull. When it was a bull which had a sister, he explained the bull would enter the food chain and the heifer would likely be infertile. There are a certain number of people who will never want to understand, and none more so than animal rights activists and vegans.
James started by engaging with them, but quickly learned there was nothing to be achieved in doing so.
“All they want to do is have a slanging match to increase their profile,” he says. Consequently, he has chosen to block extreme activists. He is keen not to avoid difficult questions from the right people, but choosing not to interact with difficult individuals is important.
He says it should not put people off social media, but rather he believes it is one of the main reasons to join social media.
“They’re trying to tell a story and it’s not their story to tell. It’s our story to tell. We’re the ones getting up in the rain or worrying if we can feed our cows. It’s us who should be telling our stories,” he says.
“There are so many fantastic stories in farming and it’s a shame not more people give social media a go.”
He has also battled negative comments from other farmers online which led him to have a week off social media. But having had numerous positive comments from other followers when he came back, he has continued to take part
In general the positives far outweigh the negatives for James. In fact the positive network of farmers online has proved one of the main draws.
“I’ve made some life-long friends online which I wouldn’t have normally met. Farming is a very isolated industry. You can get stuck in a bubble and think you’re the only ones with a problem. You could have had a bad day and look online and see everyone has their problems,” he explains.
It also provides an insight into farming around the world, with James regularly chatting to producers in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In fact a friend he met on Instagram will be coming to stay on the family farm in a few weeks’ time.
“It’s a great chance to learn about different farming methods and show people farming in the UK.”
Social media has also opened up various opportunities, including being asked to speak at local farming groups, appearing on Countryfile and regularly being asked to contribute on BBC Breakfast. And while he says this doesn’t benefit the farm, he believes it helps the industry.
The role of social media in promoting the family farm is also another area James feels passionately about. Like many farms in the area, his family has been farming for several generations and he is keen to highlight the work family farms play in supporting the local community. He is on the parish council and also on the Westmorland Show committee. For James, social media is a modern extension of this farming community. Highlighting the role farmers play in looking after the environment is also high on his agenda.
“I like to show the investment in the future and the next generation, like us planting trees and looking after the becks,” he adds. He believes farmers should view social media as ‘a modern day diary’.
Ultimately, when used appropriately, embracing such modern communication methods will only benefit how the public perceives the industry. “It helps with our image and shows we’re forward-thinking and technically minded.”